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Green group ‘As You Sow’ pressures P&G shareholders to phase out unrecyclable packaging

As You Sow, a nonprofit organization that promotes environmental and social corporate responsibility through shareholder advocacy, coalition building, and innovative legal strategies, has received a "qualified commitment" from Procter & Gamble that 90% of its packaging will be recyclable by 2020. The commitment came the day before an October 14 vote on a shareholder proposal filed by As You Sow, which asked the company to phase out of unrecyclable packaging. The shareholders represent $35 billion in P&G stock, according to As You Sow.

Clare Goldsberry

October 27, 2014

4 Min Read
Green group ‘As You Sow’ pressures P&G shareholders to phase out unrecyclable packaging

However, that "qualified commitment" from P&G, issued by P&G on Oct. 13 as one of several new sustainability goals, didn't seem to set well with Conrad MacKerron, senior vice president of As You Sow. "It's encouraging that P&G appeared to make a significant commitment to recyclable packaging at the same time shareholders were delivering a strong message to senior management to move in that direction," said MacKerron. "However, we are concerned that vague phrasing could dilute that commitment." P&G commits to "ensuring that 90% of product packaging is recyclable - or that programs are in place to recycle it" by 2020, which MacKerron interprets as rather wishy-washy. "The company appeared to qualify its commitment to implying that it may instead work on improving local recycling programs," MacKerron said.

So what's wrong with helping communities implement recycling programs? Or is that MacKerron wants to get rid of plastic - something for which the group advocates in favor of paper. We discussed this in a blog last May: [www.plasticstoday.com/blogs/more-investors-bow-to-pressure-from-green-group-to-drop-plastic-packaging-140527].

We know it's plastics the group is after because plastics are the only materials discussed in this latest release from As You Sow regarding P&G. "Unrecyclable packaging doesn't just end up in landfills - according to a recent assessment of marine debris by the Global Environment Facility, it often gets swept into waterways, which contributes to the growing problem of plastic pollution of the world's oceans and damages marine ecosystems. There is also emerging evidence that plastic particles in the marine environment can absorb and spread toxics through the marine food web, and possibly to human," MacKerron said in the release.

I recently sat in on a panel discussion at the In-Mold Decorating Association's annual symposium, in which the subject of unscientific hype regarding "sustainability" and "recyclability" was addressed as one of the topics. One individual made an excellent suggestion with regard to packaging sustainability and recyclability: "Companies should look at total energy consumption" for its packaging and have one standard for measuring this in order to understand which types of packages are truly more green than others. In other words, figure the "total cost of ownership" for plastic packaging, similar to what the industry uses for calculating the actual "cost" of a mold.

Recycling sounds great! Who doesn't love the 3Rs (Reduce, Reuse, Recycle)? But what is the total energy consumption to recycle a specific material? Plastic for example, has seven different categories which require people to sort the material into the proper categories because different plastic materials with varying properties cannot be comingled. The process of collecting the recycled materials requires a gasoline-powered truck to drive around and pick up the materials either from individual homes or from the community recycling centers, and take the materials to the reclaimer.

The people who work at the reclaimer must travel by car or bus, generally, to get to work. Electricity must be used at the reclaimer to run the conveyors that carry the materials through the sorting line. The materials - the various plastics categories, metals (aluminum primarily), glass and paper - must then be crushed and baled or put into containers and shipped off to facilities (some as far away as China) for reprocessing to make the recyclate into materials to be used in new products. Many of these recycled materials in the plastics categories are then shipped back to the U.S., which often makes recycled plastics more expensive than virgin materials.

Another person mentioned measuring "total resources used" to determine how green a material is, such as measuring the amount of water used in processing paper or heat energy needed to produce glass or metal packaging.

Can we then measure the total energy and resources consumed, and set a standard for what constitutes a "green" package? It just might be that plastic is more truly green that glass, metal or paper. Otherwise why would companies have moved to plastic packaging for their food products over glass or metal? Not only is there a cost benefit, but there just might be an energy and resources benefit as well.

We'll never know if we can't get through the hype and plastics bashing to the scientific evidence and actually measure the energy and resource consumption to develop a usable standard.

While just about all types of packaging today is recyclable, that's not the real issue. The real issue is whether or not people will actually take the time and go to the trouble to make sure that all of the packaging they handle is recycled.  Making packaging recyclable is the responsibility of the manufacturer. Making sure that the packaging is recycled is the responsibility of the consumer. And ultimately, the only thing that the consumer can actually do is put the recyclables in the recycling bin. What happens after that is anyone's guess. And most of us never see our recyclable after they leave the curb, so we have no idea of the total cost involved - energy and resources - to recycle.

I can only hope that P&G's shareholders are smart enough to sort the hype from scientific facts when it comes to any commitments to 90% recyclable packaging. I mean, as long as we're sorting, sorting scientific fact from hype is a good place to start.

About the Author(s)

Clare Goldsberry

Until she retired in September 2021, Clare Goldsberry reported on the plastics industry for more than 30 years. In addition to the 10,000+ articles she has written, by her own estimation, she is the author of several books, including The Business of Injection Molding: How to succeed as a custom molder and Purchasing Injection Molds: A buyers guide. Goldsberry is a member of the Plastics Pioneers Association. She reflected on her long career in "Time to Say Good-Bye."

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